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21 Apr 11 | Re: More reasons to vote YES to AV

When I went to see Stewart Lee before Christmas he was reminiscing about eighties comedy and how absolutely everybody hated the Tories in the eighties. He expressed his amazement at how they kept being re-elected when everyone hated them. “I can only conclude,” he concluded, “that it was because of the superior number of votes they kept getting.”

He’s right, of course, but only a bit right. He’s right that in actual fact, not everybody hated the Tories. The world of alternative comedy was a little bit out of touch in assuming that all parts of society could muster as much Tory hate as a non-representative group of young, metropolitan left-wingers. But Stew isn’t necessarily right to assume that the superior number of votes they kept getting was entirely due to the fact that they were popular. Particularly in the first half of the decade, the Tories benefited enormously from the luxury of an opposition in some disarray. The Labour Party agreed that the Tories were far too right-wing, but they couldn’t agree on how left-wing they should be in response, and what ended up happening is that some of the centrists split off and formed the SDP. Come election time, people who hated the Tories (not everyone but a lot of people) couldn’t all work out who to vote for. If they were really left-wing, sure, they carried on voting Labour. But what if they were centrist? Should they take a risk and vote for this new party, which was closer to what they believed in, or should they stick with lefty-lefty old Labour to try and have the best chance of getting the Tories out?

What happened is what always happens when a new contender comes along to shake up the political landscape. Nobody quite knew how everyone else was likely to vote, so nobody knew how best to make their vote count. The result was that the anti-Tory vote got split, didn’t count for as much as it could have, and the arguably unpopular Conservative government got back in.

Under Alternative Vote, the SDP splitting off wouldn’t have mattered so much. People who hated the Tories wouldn’t have had to guess which party to pick as the focus of that hatred. The centrists could have put SDP first, Labour second, and the others could have done it the other way, and there would have been no wasted votes. Democratic utopia! Now I’m not saying for definite that the Tories wouldn’t have won - but at least the people who liked them and the people who didn’t like them could all have had their say without having to play a silly guessing game.

This kind of thing is why I don’t understand people who say the AV question is boring. The crisis of the left in the eighties was one of the major political events of the late 20th century, and its ramifications would have been entirely different under AV. The benefits of AV aren’t only of interest to pollsters and mathematicians - they could have radically altered our history.

There is more to this.

In 1997, Labour had the opposite problem. The Conservative government was immensely unpopular, so electorally, they felt like they were staring at an open goal. But they’d been there before, five years earlier, and not got in. Some people wanted to learn from 1992 and make the Labour Party quite a lot more right-wing, just to make sure they would have the broadest appeal possible and definitely get elected. Others thought that by now, the Tories were so unpopular that they could stay quite left-wing and still win without having to compromise. This was quite a conundrum - they didn’t want to blow it again and be in the wilderness for another five years!

What eventually happened was that the get-more-right-wing-to-be-safe crowd won, creating New Labour. A lot of the old lefties were quite unhappy about that, but did they do anything? Not this time! The New Labour people were able to invoke the SDP debacle from the eighties and stress the importance of absolute unity - division within the party could have spelt electoral death once again. So the party stayed together and everyone contested the election as New Labour, and got in with a massive majority. The problem was that New Labour didn’t accurately represent the concerns of all the MPs who made up that majority, but the majority was so big that the leadership could afford to ignore that. Blair was able to claim all the anti-Tory feeling that had built up over 18 years as pro-Blair feeling, and use this illusory mandate to do whatever he wanted.

Under Alternative Vote, anyone who didn’t like what Blair was doing could have happily split off and formed Socialist Labour or Real Labour or Old Labour and stood in the election as well. There would be no worry about splitting the vote, so the electorate would have decided which Not-The-Tories party it preferred. In some areas, that would have been New Labour, in some it would have been Old Labour. Maybe that would have meant a reduced majority for New Labour, maybe even a coalition. But either way, the section of the electorate that liked Old Labour would have had a chance to get its voice properly heard, instead of being completely ignored.

To me, everyone gets heard = better democracy. That’s why AV is a better system. Not just in the abstract world of maths - in the real world too.

Posted by SCOTTY WATTS at 18:05

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